Growing up as the youngest in a household with two older sisters, Jennifer Yuh Nelson has always drawn and doodled. Both of her sisters became animators, and Yuh Nelson followed in their footsteps. Her parents, Korean American immigrants, have always been supportive of their choices.
Yuh Nelson became the first woman to direct a feature length animated film with Kung Fu Panda 2. Her newest film in the franchise, Kung Fu Panda 3, takes audiences on a journey with the beloved Po (voiced by Jack Black) to find his long lost panda family in a remote panda village. The film, which is directed by Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, opens in theaters January 29, 2016.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson discusses her early memories of drawing with her sisters, Asian and Asian American actors in the film, and how her own life parallels Po’s.
You were involved with the first Kung Fu Panda film, and then became the director of the second. How did that process happen?
I was the head of story [in the first film], and as a head of story, you’re responsible for a lot of the character development and visualizations. You’re working very closely with the directors. Because of that, on the second one, when the opportunity came up for directing, Melissa [Cobb], who has produced all three, told me, “You should direct the second one.” It was a little scary, because I hadn’t thought of doing that, but with the support of the crew, because all of use had worked together for so many ears, it was actually quite easy.
How did you get into animation?
I majored in illustration at Cal State Long Beach, and my sisters did as well. We’re all in animation. When I graduated, I didn’t know I’d go into animation. I actually wanted to go into live storyboarding. I had been storyboarding my whole life, without realizing that’s what it was. I had movies in my head, and I didn’t have a camera, so I would draw them. And that’s storyboarding. When I graduated, a job opportunity came up to be m sister’s PA making copies at an animation studio while I was in college. I through, well, it’s a great little side job while I finish up school, I’ll do it.
When I was there, a producer saw my work. I think little Post-its I had on the wall. He said, “Why are you making copies? Come here, draw something.” (laughs). So I started becoming a character designer and a story artist, and just went on from there.
How many sisters do you have? Two? And are they older?
Both older. Both in animation. My sister Catherine [Yuh Rader] actually worked on Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3. So we wall worked together.
Growing up, did you all like to draw or watch movies?
We all drew. It’s just something we’ve all done since one or two. We grew up together sitting around a table just drawing on piles of paper, any piece of paper around the house was always covered in drawings. I would grow up watching my sisters draw better than me, because they are better than me. I’d look at them go, “Wow, that’s magic! How do you do that?”
In your family, did you parents encourage this and let you take art classes? Was there pressure to not go into art?
My parents were actually very supportive of all of us and all the choices that we had. I mean, all of us were good in school. We had opportunity to go into the traditional engineering, or being a doctor, but our passion was always drawing. It’s just what we did when no one told us what to do. If we didn’t have anything else to do, we’d draw.
My mom also draws. She paints and does watercolors. They understand. And so when we had to go into college and choose our major, it was fine when my older sister chose illustration. Because of that, it was fairly un-abnormal for me to choose illustration
Were there any challenges in terms of finding work after college, or as an Asian American woman, or just period?
I was very fortunate, actually. When I was graduating from college, there were a lot of opportunities in animation. All these studios were opening up, so there was a lot of hiring. I got in right away. I was working while I was still in school. I was storyboarding a year out of school, and directing a year and a half out of school. It was a different time than right now, but it was certainly still difficult. It’s still a risk to give someone that responsibility.
But I think what I always did was I didn’t talk my way into a job. Because I’m not that giddily social and extroverted of a person—I’m quite introverted. I’m actually quite quiet. And to look at me, you don’t’ think, “Wow, she’s into hardcore action movies, and likes to choreograph and draw action sequences.” But what I did have is, I had my drawings. When the producers had scripts, I said, “Could I take one page and try it, just for me?” I would draw it, I would show them what I could do. It didn’t require talking them into it. It’s just showing them, this is what I could do for you. And then, they would go, “Here’s the rest of the script.” That’s how I got my first storyboarding job.
Because there was a one-minute opening for one of the shows, and the producer said here, just try it, for giggles. And I brought it back in two hours. And he gave me the rest of the script and said, “Here, do it.” That was Johnny Quest and Hanna-Barbera. It was in the 90s. But I think there’s a similar opportunity going on right now. The animation field is far larger now than it was then. That time, it was a lot of TV animation and DreamWorks Animation was starting up.
Now, you have so many animation studios all over the place, and so many TV shows going on. There was a dry spell in between, but now it’s huge.
Do you feel that being an Asian American woman influences your storytelling?
I think there’s a very strong sense of family and closeness to the parents, and just that sense of community. I’m very close to my family I’m very, very close to my childhood feelings of that warmth. Trying to recapture that, Po’s experience meeting his biological panda father and reconnecting with all the pandas he meets in the film.
For me, being raised in the U.S., when I went back to Korea for the first time since I was a kid, was quite eye-opening. To see so many people that looked like me, to see things that I’d never thought I was missing. Clothes that fit me, food that tasted good, thing I’d never thought about. This entire place, everyone looked like and behaved like me. It was kind of bizarre. And yet I was also different, because I was raised in the States. There’s things about me that’s totally different from people there. Po goes through the same thing when he goes there. Everyone looks like him, everyone behaves like him. There are similarities but there’s also a difference and that feeling that Po got is how I felt.
Did you come up with that part of the story in the film?
It was part of it. I developed the story along with the writers and producers and the other director, Alessandro [Carloni]. We all worked on it together. It’s just that that feeling is something that I can craw on, in conversations. And I think a lot of people can draw on that as well.
It’s given a lot of voiceover artists and actors a lot of opportunities. In terms of casting, did you want to have certain roles be Asian American?
Definitely. Randall Duk Kim is fantatstic. Wu Gui wouldn’t be Wu Gui without him and he’s an amazing actor. And it just seemed the right thing do, to make sure that Wu Gui was an Asian actor. Same with James Hong. Fantastic, Jackie Chan, amazing. And also we have an entire Mandarin voice cast for the mandarin version of the film. There’s an entire amazing top level cast, and Jackie Chan plays a different role. He plays the father in the Mandarin version. We have a Mandarin version of the film that’s entirely Asian.
There will have the regular version with English-speaking actors and subtitles, but there will be a fully Mandarin animated version where all of it is seamlessly animated for the Mandarin voice cast. So there’s no subtitles. Totally different case. It’s very labor-intensive to do that. You’re making two movies. We do that because it’s Kung Fu Panda, it’s a sign of respect to show the Chinese audience, because they’ve so embraced the first two films, here’s a version you can watch without feeling like you have to read a bunch of subtitles at the bottom. It feels natively Mandarin.
Did you have a favorite scene or favorite moment in the film?
I loved—no spoilers—but towards the end when everyone comes together to help Po achieve what he’s gotta achieve. That moment always brings a little tear to my eye.
It’s very moving. For an action film, there’s a lot of emotions.
Emotion and comedy, we try to balance all those things together.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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